Making Mess

Success stories are a powerful trope of international development and conservation work. They structure the way NGOs, governments and companies engage with powerful donors and public opinion. They also smooth over complexities, efface failures, and ignore contradictions. They present ongoing situations as if they are done, dusted, and thus can legitimately stand as a lesson to others who seek to achieve similar goals. They clean up mess. But conservation and development work is all mess.

Making mess...
Making mess…

As my ethnographic work proceeds here in Congo, it’s hard to keep a lid on all the mess I encounter. As I sit in Brazzaville trying to make yet another workplan for the coming months that I know is unlikely to stick, I fear the mess may overflow and overwhelm me. It’s been there from the start, from the very first day I started working on Extreme Citizen Science, but it’s here – in the field, at the point of implementation – where mess makes itself most apparent. Success stories are powerful (particularly those that begin with failure) and certainly I’ve told my fair share of them. But I’m beginning to understand that without accounting for mess it’s impossible to make sense of what is actually happening in the complex, multi-layered, power-laden realities of development and conservation work, or the global industrial processes this work simultaneously denigrates and supports. If we are to be faithful to mess, and we urgently need to be faithful to mess, then we need to unlearn old narrative tropes and engage with something quite different. We need to learn how to tell, and we need to learn how to listen to, unsuccess stories.

This is a tall order in an industry dominated by one principle agenda – securing the next round of project funding. It’s a tall order in a world obsessed with the inspirational force of TED Talks, Disney movies and cheery motivational posters. It’s a tall order when the storyteller risks upsetting or offending friends and colleagues, and the listeners risk treating unsuccess as failure, which is quite a different beast. Unsuccess is not intended to be judgemental. It’s just a story of what is, on the ground, sur le terrain. A story of mess.

I’m still thinking this through, but here’s a (tame) example from my recent work. I wrote a blog post for ExCiteS about the potentials of using ExCiteS’ icon-based software Sapelli to support a group of community-organised ecoguards to collect data about wildlife and hunting activity in the Lefini Reserve. We piloted the system in the context of a research project, and the two ecoguards who participated were very enthusiastic about the possibilities. So far so successful. But what I left out of the story was that these ecoguards are supposed to be engaged in the same process as the conservation organisation that supports them – trying to stop other members of their community from hunting. This means that they are not only not necessarily representative of, but are often directly opposed to, the community at large – so what then for the radical community participation philosophy of “Extreme Citizen Science”? Furthermore, the conservation organisation does not have a government mandate that allows it to provide official support to the ecoguards – and thus the sustainability of the project is questionable and rests on political decisions being made at the national level. Additionally, there are some doubts within the conservation organisation as to whether it is strategically desirable to continue working in Lefini at all rather than focusing on “priority” landscapes where elephant poaching is a bigger issue.

There is worse mess here, but I am struggling to find a way to tell it. To be faithful to it I’ll need to weave narratives that may directly contradict the success stories my colleagues and I have told in the past. But if we are to make any progress towards the lofty aims of Extreme Citizen Science – to support truly community-driven, bottom-up processes of data collection, analysis and use – then however uncomfortable it is, these messy unsuccess stories will need to be told.

Worlds Collide

(Gosh, that was all getting a bit emo there for a minute wasn’t it? Like a fleeting return to my early naughties LiveJournal days. What’s needed here is some decent deconstruction to chase the melancholy away. I know just the thing…)

IMG_5519The tourists arrived in two open top safari cars, the sound of the over-powered 4×4 engines practically drowned out by the flickering of camera shutters and the wondering gasps of rich Western city-dwellers confronted by the sight of mud-brick houses roofed with leaves. They were bedecked in the greys and khakis and greens of expensive jungle gear bought especially for this short sojourn into the fringes of the rainforest, their necks adorned with high-end camera bodies attached to pricey glass. They descended, cameras glued to their faces, shooting wordlessly as curious villagers came to greet them. With some bemusement they were shepherded over to the village chief, sat by the remains of a fire in his deerskin chair, who proffered a hand for each of them to shake. Then they were shepherded back again, cameras still snapping, to a row of plastic garden chairs; fine luxury in this part of the world, laid out especially for them. They settled – each with one camera in their laps and one poised, ready, viewfinder to eyeball – to watch the singing and dancing that would take place in their honour. And not one of them had any inkling of the mess their fleeting collision with this other world had caused.

Visits to indigenous villages have become a staple of tourism in the so-called Global South, as sightseers from across the price spectrum – luxury travellers and backpackers alike – have proven themselves hungry for glimpses of peoples and worlds unlike their own. Such ventures are often marketed as alternative livelihood solutions for communities living in poverty – particularly in conservation areas where local people are no longer permitted to hunt and gather as they used to. Branded as “eco-” or “sustainable” tourism, the fluffy language in which they are couched for consumption by the globetrotting occidental middle-classes serves largely to mask the deep power imbalances and pernicious consequences that tend to permeate such projects. This was only the third time tourists had visited Mboka*, the most easily accessible indigenous village on the outskirts of the National Park where I’d been working – and just as on the previous two occasions, (and completely unbeknownst to the camera-laden Swedes and Americans), it had been preceded by several days of arguments, in-fighting and, sometimes violent, conflict.

IMG_5497The theory goes that tourism can generate a supplementary income for communities like Mboka, but it is precisely this income that lies at the root of many of the problems. Cash is something of a poisoned chalice in the rural landscape of Congo, where the economies of local and indigenous villages have only recently begun to monetise. Where previous subsistence practices, based on immediate-return hunting and gathering, had drawn on a cosmology that emphasised the necessity of sharing and ensured more-or-less egalitarian social relations between people, money has introduced alien concepts such as private property and the capacity to store and conceal value from others. All fairly well when the sums are small, but Western tourists become rapidly associated with untold riches that no one can agree on how to divide appropriately. To further complicate matters, the “indigenous people” that the tourists come to see are so entangled in discriminatory relationships with their agriculturalist neighbours that any money the tourists bring in is soon captured by local elites. And, when spent, it rarely goes on the schools and medical care that the tourists desire to provide, but more often on problematic consumables, such as alcohol.

The National Park’s social team are trying hard to work out how to introduce a tourism scheme that won’t result in rampant alcoholism and elite capture, however most of the proposed solutions are necessarily paternalistic and deny much self-determination to the indigenous populations in deciding how money earned from tourism will be spent. In fact, some suggestions that the population have made – such as corrugated tin sheets to replace the leaf roofs of their houses – have been directly denied, for fear that the tourists will be put off by such an “inauthentic” look. At the same time, concerns that if the tourists’ visits are not “structured” enough then they won’t feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth are motivating Park employees to push communities into developing hierarchical organisational structures, and to “packaging” indigenous dances, songs, households and culture into repeatable, accessible morsels removed from their wider cosmological and ecological significance. This sort of approach can serve largely to exoticise and “other” indigenous lives in the eyes of those who come to watch, while at the same time rendering the actual practices on which the tourist-friendly versions are based things of a half-remembered past.

IMG_5499The irony of the whole situation is that if it wasn’t for the presence of the National Park then an income from tourism wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. While it was established to protect elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other coveted species (coveted, that is, by foreign markets and conservationists, rather than necessarily by local people), the Park itself is one of the biggest drivers of the species loss it seeks to avoid. Indigenous people have hunted and gathered in remote areas of forest like this for thousands of years using sustainable practices that have ensured animal populations can thrive. However, the establishment of the Park brought tourists and management staff, and the tourists and management staff needed roads and a service economy. The roads make access easier for illegal poachers intent on feeding ivory-hungry Chinese markets. The service economy has prompted the development of a thriving bushmeat trade. Both hunter-gatherer and farmer populations are now denied access to large swathes of land, and therefore to the ability to move around as animal populations fluctuate. Formerly sustainable practices have been rendered unsustainable, and draconian enforcement measures used by Park-employed “ecoguards” mean that local people end up not just hungry, but often badly abused.

Short wonder they are wary of new livelihood initiatives the Park is bringing in; as our research assistant commented: “I think that the people here would prefer it if the white people left altogether and they were able to get on with hunting like they want to.” I’d be inclined to agree, if it wasn’t for the fact that in the face of the current global land grab the National Park is almost certainly the only thing keeping out forestry firms, palm oil companies, and now coltan prospectors. The Congolese government is already planning a new road through this region; when it arrives, tourism may be the least of their worries.


*I’ve used a false name, for obvious reasons. While my feelings about indigenous tourism and fortress conservation come across pretty clearly here, I have an enormous amount of respect for the National Park employees working in this context – they have a tough brief and not a lot of options in the face of global forces they can’t control.

Elephant in the Room

At the end of September world leaders from around the globe met in New York to discuss the progress that had (and hadn’t) been made towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the set of eight international development targets agreed by all 192 United Nations member states in 2000 and that outline the ambitious overall target of the eradication of extreme poverty by the year 2015. As might be expected, progress towards the goals has been mixed and while there have been some notable advances, the targets are still looking comparatively distant given that there are only 5 years remaining to make them happen. And, yet again and in spite of campaigns from several high profile groups and NGOs, there was one topic that was conspicuously absent from the agenda – just as it is conspicuously absent from the Goals themselves and all their related documentation – disability.

A disabled man begs for money in Quiapo market
A disabled man begs for money in Quiapo market

Of course, I don’t think you’ll find many who will deny that international development should be inclusive of everyone. Nor, I hope, will you find many of the opinion that the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved without including everyone. Of course they can’t, particularly given that people with disabilities (PWDs) make up 20% of the world’s poor. Yet given the intersection of disability with all eight of the issues that concern the MDGs, and the widely cited cyclical relationship between disability and extreme poverty, it seems like a blaring omission that disability is not explicitly discussed. It’s like everybody knows about it, but nobody wants to bring it up – a situation that may seem ironically familiar to anyone who actually has a disability.

But perhaps there’s good reason. If the MDGs are to be truly inclusive, why start singling out disability as an issue? Surely that is, in itself, a form of discrimination? Surely the inclusion of the disability agenda in the MDGs as they exist (for disability issues interact with all of the MDGs) should be taken as a given?

Obviously, this would be a nice ideal, and yes, of course it is important that disability issues are mainstreamed and that people with disabilities are not positioned as an “other” or “less fortunate” group in comparison with “able-bodied” people. After all, most people have what could be termed a disability in some way, it’s just some are easier to correct than others (I would be entirely lost, for example, without corrective lenses of a suitable strength). However, when it actually comes to development as it exists presently, mainstreaming disability is neither an easy nor a common practice. This is because the challenges brought about by disability aren’t just a magnified version of development challenges in general – they are challenges of an entirely different nature that need to be very specifically addressed. For example, MDG 2 is universal education – free primary education for absolutely every child in the world. Programmes that work to address universal education may concentrate on building schools and facilities, training teachers or providing resources. But for children with disabilities the additional challenges of accessibility need to be taken into account if they are to benefit – how will a child who can’t move their legs attend school without a wheelchair?

A wheelchair user is forced to wheel in a busy road
A wheelchair user is forced to wheel in a busy road

How will the same child attend school in their newly provided wheelchair without ramps? How will a blind child use the textbooks that have been provided, or a deaf child communicate with the teacher? These challenges can be addressed and overcome, but only if time, money and resources are strategically invested – and therein lies the point.

The Millennium Development Goals have been heavily criticised for their idealism, naivety and immeasurability, but regardless of whether or not they are realistic, the impact they have had and will continue to have on funding and program priorities in international development is significant. While disability is left out of the explicit statement of the goals, that vital sector is unlikely to receive the funding or the attention it deserves, and the disabled community will be left even further behind in the terms of progress the MDGs describe (at present the sector is already trailing both ideologically and practically in the world of development). If the development community keeps trying to implement programmes to further the Goals without developing a specific plan of action for how disability issues can be tackled in their work, then they risk widening the gap further between the “able” and “differently-able” and creating a situation in which people with disabilities find it harder rather than easier to break out of the cycle of poverty in which they are so often trapped. But unless someone calls out the elephant and disability is explicitly mentioned in the MDGs, it is unlikely that such specific plans of action will be created. Because whether or not the Goals represent false promises, misplaced good intentions or over-ambitious fantasies, in reality they are used as the bar by which development practice is currently set, and that means that unless disability is included now, the chances of drawing close to them ever, let alone by 2015, is very small indeed.

Town Mouse, Country Mouse

A subsistence fisher in Iloilo

It is estimated that 44% of the population of the Philippines live on less than $2 a day, and that 80% of the poor live in rural areas of the country. Every year, thousands of these rural poor move to the cities in search of employment, improved living conditions and a better life for themselves and their families. Bing Bing, a subsistence farmer I met in Zambales province recited to me a common belief, “Life may be hard in the city, yet if that is so it is far harder out here in the provinces.” Yet, the population of urban poor in the cities is growing rapidly, and with it the myriad problems associated with acute urban poverty,

Street family
A family living on the streets of Anonas, Manila

to the extent that NGOs like street children charity Virlanie have begun to run programmes intended to relocate families back in the rural areas they came from. Of course, urban and rural poverty are interrelated issues, both with their own unique challenges, and both in need of serious intervention. But is life really easier in the cities, or is this just a common misconception? What are the differences between town and countryside? Continue reading “Town Mouse, Country Mouse”


Sari Sari
A Sari Sari store run by two microfinance clients, both PWDs

Travelling to Iloilo at the beginning of the month in order to conduct an assessment of a microfinance programme that targets people with disabilities as clients, I was required to undertake a bit of a crash course in microfinance theory. Microfinance – the provision of small loans (and other financial services) to the poor to enable them to avoid using traditional moneylenders who charge high rates – is a big buzzword in the world of development at the moment, particularly since the founder of the movement, Muhammed Yunus, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Yet I was surprised as I researched just how much misinformation has been popularly propagated about microfinance and how many traps that, even with quite a bit of knowledge of the issues, I had nearly fallen into. Here are some of the biggest culprits:

Microfinance exists to provide small, low-interest loans to the poor

According to his oft-told story, the first loans Yunus made were less than $1 each, and he didn’t charge any interest to the 42 borrowers who he was helping to avoid borrowing from a local loan shark. However, this is by no means a typical example of the movement he was about to create. Obviously the size of loans varies from location to location depending on local currency value and consumer prices, but one of the critical principles of the working of microcredit is not the provision of the initial loan itself, but rather the permanent availability of credit in the future. The main incentive for borrowers to pay back their loans is that if they do so they will be able to access further loans for larger amounts. So while loans may start relatively small, once a client has built up a good track record with a microbank they should be able to borrow more – eventually hundreds, and occasionally even thousands of dollars. Of course, this makes a lot of sense – if microfinance schemes wish to support the poor in setting up their own businesses, it would be detrimental to their empowerment and ability to compete in the local market not to enable them to expand their businesses as well. And even the larger loans are still relatively small as far as mainstream banks are concerned – many countries implement a cap on how large a microloan can be before a borrower should seek credit from a regulated institution.

Interest is another matter of common misunderstanding. The interest rates charged by microfinance organisations are in fact much higher than the rates charged by banks on credit cards – starting at 25% per annum and averaging 30% – 40%. This is a matter over which microfinance often comes under attack, but the high interest rates are a necessity for sustainability, and sustainability is vital for microfinance organisations to continue their work. The costs associated with providing microloans are much higher than those associated with bank loans simply because of the scale involved. It costs the same in terms of administration and staffing to make one large loan as it does to make one small loan – making many small loans is therefore a much less efficient model, which is why banks don’t do it already. Microfinance organisations also have higher costs because of the social development training they need to provide for staff, the financial training they need to provide for beneficiaries, and the intensivity of collection programmes – loan payments are usually collected weekly, in person, and in difficult to reach areas. The interest rates of microfinance organisations therefore need to reflect these higher costs if they wish to survive. They are still a lot lower than the rates charged by traditional moneylenders.

Finally, the microloans themselves are not the only important feature of microfinance services. Other financial services are also provided which are considered vital for financially empowering the poor communities served (see below).

The high microloan repayment rates make it a low risk investment

Large, well-run MFIs like Yunus’ Grameen Bank report repayment rates between 97-98%, and even smaller lenders report that they try to keep their average rates between 90 and 95%. However, there is no real consensus in the industry on precisely what “repayment rate” means and how it should be calculated – this means that these figures can be very misleading, particularly as many microlenders have differing methodologies for dealing with collections and loan write-offs. This isn’t to say that the poor aren’t necessarily good borrowers, just that there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to support the assertion that on average microfinance sees better repayment rates than bank loans; and that often microfinance providers are not able to accurately assess risk (and therefore set interest rates or take other action accordingly) because the calculations they are using are flawed.

The term “well-run” is also operative here. The microfinance organisations that exhibit the best performance and can be most confident of their repayment figures are those that stick almost religiously to a formula tailored to the local circumstances within which they work. Lending to people with no collateral is, by nature, risky, and the successful microfinance organisations are the ones that manage this risk carefully – by requiring borrowers to be accountable members of a small local community, by operating a loan cycle system that allows borrowers to gain credit and borrow more, and by ensuring frequent scheduled repayments that are collected in person by trained social development workers.

Microfinance is intended to help the poor set up small businesses

While this is certainly one intended use of a microloan, it is by no means the exclusive approach of microfinance providers, who recognise that it is the opportunity to continue loaning ever larger amounts that is the principle motivator for clients to pay their loans on time. These loans may be spent on business creation and business expansion, both of which are usually essential for the client to ensure they can pay, but later loans may also be used to cover school fees for children, doctors and hospital bills and other circumstances that require a relatively large sum of money up-front. One of the intended outcomes of microfinance schemes is to undermine local moneylenders who charge extortionate rates of interest, and people do not always borrow from money lenders just to start businesses. Loans for immediate consumables (food to eat etc.) are usually not an option (although that doesn’t mean they aren’t used that way), and there are sometimes concerns about clients using microloans for cultural practices that the loan providers don’t see as a “justified” use of the money, such as bridal dowries in India. Naturally this leads to debate about just how “locally responsive” microfinance providers need to be if they are to genuinely empower local communities within the context of their own cultural and social practices.

Fish Stall
A fish stall in the market in Iloilo City

Microfinance is also about more than just making small loans – the principle is designed to address not just credit exclusion, but exclusion from other financial products as well. Most successful microfinance organisations offer savings schemes in addition to loans, and sometimes require their clients to hold savings if they wish to take out further loans. In fact, some of the few good impact assessments that exist have shown that these savings facilities can make more of an impact on relative poverty than the loans themselves. Micro-insurance is a new and growing addition to the scene that seeks to address healthcare provision among poor communities in developing countries.

Microfinance targets the poorest of the poor

In fact, most beneficiaries of microfinance schemes are fairly close to the poverty line – the “richest of the poor” if you will. This is for good reasons – it is these clients who are in the best positions to start successful businesses, generate an income to pay their loans and benefit from the opportunities that microfinance brings to improve the financial condition of themselves and their families. The poorest families are more difficult to reach (sometimes physically as many live in the most rural areas) and are often in need of other more immediate interventions before they could be in a position to benefit from a loan – education is one of the biggest gaps, as well as healthcare. A recent report by USAID, a large provider of funds for microfinance programmes, concluded that their requirement for at least 50% of their aid money to reach the very poorest families wasn’t being met because it was unrealistic in the first place. This is not to say that the poorest are impossible to reach, but microfinance organisations need to work with them in the context of a wider suite of interventions and need to be cautious about the risks involved. Many established microfinance organisations are now looking at how to conduct the outreach work needed to target poorer sectors, but their efforts are largely experimental and they can only do so because they are confident of the security of their existing programmes. Also, it is important not to underestimate the poverty of those who are nearer the poverty line who are being reached – we’re talking people who live on $2 a day rather than $1, so even though they may be at the “richer” end of the poverty scale they are still very much in need of the vital services microfinance brings, and it is only by addressing their needs that microfinance organisations will put themselves in a position where they can target poorer clients.

Microfinance providers are strictly not-for-profit

In the early stages of its development, microfinance was the exclusive preserve of charities, non-profits and NGOs, but as the industry has grown many profit based microfinance providers have started to appear, and big players in international financial markets are beginning to take an interest – SKS is an Indian microfinance bank that is about to become the third such organisation to make shares available on public investment markets (the first was Mexican MFI Compartamos in 2007). Naturally, there are concerns that this situation will lead to exploitation of the poor for profit and Muhammed Yunus has condemned moves to seek funding by these means, stating that it “endangers the whole mission”.

There have been some reported cases of for-profit microfinance organisations engaging in exploitative practices, particularly in India where there is a large microfinance market, and this is obviously a big problem that needs to be addressed. However, in the majority of cases, for-profit microfinance providers maintain that they can still focus on social development goals while being profit-oriented, and there is a strong argument that the presence of competition from for-profit organisations is good for organisational efficiency and accountability. In particular, because of market pressures driving up efficiency, for-profits can often charge lower interest rates on loans than non-profits.

A workshop making school furniture run by the Association of Disabled Persons in Iloilo

When it comes to putting microfinance organisations on the investment market, there are distinct advantages that can be accessed – not least a strong capital base for expansion that is unavailable through more traditional funding options such as charitable grants. Microfinance is nowhere near as far reaching as people generally believe and it is estimated that 80% of demand goes uncatered for. Accessing capital markets may be the only way to make the provision of microfinance a reality for all those who need it, and yet the idea of corporate fat cats profiting off the poor gives this approach a bad image in people’s minds. A big problem here is the conflation of “profit” with “exploitation” – it is important to make a distinction between the two (if you are unwilling to do this, then it must be assumed that microfinance itself presents you with an undesirable solution to poverty, grounded as it is in capitalist principles). The fact is that if financial equality (or at least the opportunity to achieve financial equality) is the ultimate goal, then attempting to protect “the poor” from capital markets is ironically disempowering – giving people access to basic financial services for empowerment but then artifically sheltering them from the markets that provide the context to these financial services means setting up a situation by which they continue to rely on a form of charity. Obviously this is an undesirable solution – the goal of microfinance should surely be that ultimately the empowered poor can become players in these markets, rather than subject to them, although obviously this is a difficult, long-term process. That’s not to say that these transitions and transactions shouldn’t be handled with great care, nor that for-profits and big market players should be allowed to take a cavalier attitude to poverty, but if these relationships open up opportunities for microfinance to benefit more people, then it is to NGOs and charities that the task will fall of ensuring that the benefits are maximised, that corporate bodies are clear on their social responsibilities, and that beneficiaries are educated about capital markets, their role and how they can be interacted with. In addition, it is to be hoped that the extra resources that capital investment can provide could enable non-profits to focus more of their attention on the very poorest.

Microfinance is a magic cure-all solution for world poverty

Of course, if there was a magic cure-all for world poverty, you’d hope we’d be a bit further towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals than we currently are. Yet microfinance is often treated as this magic solution, particularly in the wake of the publicity received by the industry after Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. In reality, microfinance only addresses one possible cause of/solution to poverty, and while finance and credit exclusion are important issues, as we have explored microfinance initiatives can only help alleviate extreme poverty on a long term and wide scale when applied in a context that includes other vital services and interventions.

In addition, the jury is still out on the impact that microfinance really has on poor families – many microfinance organisations, particularly smaller ones, do not attempt to conduct qualitative impact analyses themselves, instead relying on the (faulty) assumption that if clients continue to loan then microfinance must be working for them. In fact, repeat loans can be a sign of any number of realities, including the often cited worry that clients are taking out loans from one organisation to pay off another. Also, there have so far been very few methodologically sound studies of the impact of microfinance, and those few that have been conducted using randomised control trials show mixed positive and negative results, indicating that the effect of microfinance on the poor may not be as straightforward as originally thought. And there is always the much neglected study of the social and cultural impact that microfinance programmes have, as connecting the poor to Western lending practices and empowering women entrepreneurs in societies when men are often the traditional players in money markets will inevitably have some big cultural consequences.

Again, this is not to diminish the importance of financial empowerment and ending credit exclusion when it comes to eradicating poverty, just that to truly understand the real impact of microfinance, providers need to take more responsibility for measuring their own impact where they work and a lot of research still needs to be done.

(The photos in this post show clients of the microfinance programme of the Association of Disabled Persons in Iloilo (ADPI). You can see more photos from my trip to Iloilo here.)